Deadlines extended to empty tanks, build waste treatment plant
RICHLAND – Washington state and federal officials announced a court-enforceable schedule Tuesday for cleaning up the nation’s most contaminated nuclear site, ending more than two years of negotiations that followed dozens of missed deadlines.
The sprawling Hanford Nuclear Reservation, created near the Tri-Cities as part of the top-secret Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb during World War II, has been a focus of extensive cleanup efforts for two decades. In that time, the pact that governs cleanup has been changed more than 400 times.
Washington state sued the Energy Department last November over missed cleanup deadlines, though the two sides settled part of the lawsuit in February. That agreement accelerated cleanup of contaminated groundwater along the neighboring Columbia River, among other things, and both sides said it would shrink the 586-square-mile site to just 75 square miles by 2015.
The consent decree that was filed Tuesday morning with U.S. District Court in Spokane sets new deadlines for the remaining points of contention: emptying underground waste tanks and building a plant to treat that waste.
The parties also agreed to review the schedule every six years to examine areas where work could be hastened.
Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire made the announcement at Hanford with Energy Secretary Steven Chu, who was visiting the site for the first time, Democratic U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, and Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski.
“All of our energy now is to be devoted to where it belongs – to cleaning up Hanford,” Chu said.
The new schedule, while longer than Washington state officials hoped, is reasonable, Gregoire said. “It is aggressive, it is achievable, and it is enforceable,” she said.
Hanford produced plutonium for the world’s first atomic blast, the Trinity Test, and for the bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, in 1945, effectively ending World War II. The site continued to contribute to the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal throughout the Cold War.
The remnants of that effort, 53 million gallons of radioactive brew, are stewing in 177 underground tanks. Some of those tanks are known to have leaked into the aquifer, threatening the river, and 144 tanks remain to be emptied of liquid waste and sludge.
The agreement will be available for public comment Sept. 24 through Nov. 9. The parties also still must consult with area American Indian tribes, including the Yakama Nation.
Each year, the federal government spends roughly $2 billion at Hanford.The administration also steered nearly $2 billion in stimulus money to Hanford cleanup this year.